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Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Walk Around the Block (part 2)

I think it is a little too early to say whether or not the newer, suburbia-style developments will catch on in Spain. I certainly hope not as they are a lot less friendly to the environment, among other things. But I don't want to talk about the fringes of Valencia, I want to talk about the center of the universe: my neighborhood of Ruzafa and, more specifically, my block. The center of my block is the 15th century church of San Valero. There are two landmarks on my block that serve as the nucleus for the entire neighborhood of Ruzafa (Russafa in Valenciano): the Ruzafa Market and the church of San Valero. Some 54% of Spanish people report that they hardly ever or never go to church and a full 18% consider themselves to be atheist. Quite a healthy disregard for the church when you consider that Spain not too long ago had Catholicism as the state religion, to the point where the government paid the salary of priests in the Franco era and beyond. However, the religion of food is thriving in Spain as is evident Monday through Friday in the Ruzafa Market.

The market is indoor but the 20 meter ceiling gives it an outdoor air. I like the feel of the market so much that I walk through it every time I pass by, and I pass by every day. I use the market as a short-cut through the neighborhood. It's a haven on rainy days and the air conditioning is a respite from summer's hottest afternoons. Most of the time the weather is just perfect in Valencia, but I still duck inside just to see what things look good on that particular day. Knowing what is in season is one of the keys to good cooking, especially in Valencia where farming isn't very dependent on hothouse fruits and vegetables. The growing season spans all twelve months of the year in the vast agricultural area that makes up the Valencia Community. Most of the produce that you find in the market has only traveled a few miles from the adjacent country side.

The fruit and vegetables here often lack the sort of perfection you see in American supermarkets. This simply provides shoppers with the challenge of finding the best products at any given point on the calendar. In the fall the weather favors the harvest of mushrooms. Not the little button mushrooms wrapped in plastic, but lovely wild things that are bigger than your hand. The more mountainous regions of the country have a richer culture of collecting and preparing mushrooms than the coastal area of Valencia. Valencia has its favorite called revollon mushroom (Lactarius deliciosus) which are in season in November. There are days as you pass through the market when you can't resist buying a half a kilo of these beautiful things. It doesn't take much imagination to find a dozen or so ways to prepare them. I lean toward the French tradition of using butter, cream, and wine as the base. I rely on the Italian starches of gnocchi or thick egg noodles for an accompaniment. You have to enjoy revollones while they last because they will be off the menu as abruptly as they arrived.

In other months of the year there are other harvests to exploit. In the spring we are pelted with cherries; tomatoes are at their best in summer, and in the winter you just have to take the best of what you can find. Planning a meal should begin when you arrive at the market. It's always best to enter with an open mind. You can see shoppers struggling to come up with a menu from the available ingredients on that particular day. The good news is that the poultry and pork products are always in season. Seafood is also pretty reliable throughout the year, in one form or another. Valencian rice is another dependable staple. I will drop in and out of the market in this volume about as often as I go there myself; for now I want to talk about my block.

The parish of San Valero is at the center of Ruzafa. I have found very scant traces of the history of the church and the two lines pertaining to its origin offered here I found in Ruzafa: La Bien Plantada by Luis Corbin Ferrer. The original church on this site burned to the ground on September 9, 1415. Construction on the present structure began on June 25, 1636. The main door to the church opens into the Plaça/Plaza Doctor Landete. I use both spellings for the plaza because the street sign is also in Valenciano and Spanish. There are three quiet cafés to choose from in the little open area of the plaza which fill up and empty out with the tides flowing in and out of the market. A small fountain adorns this quiet little piece of Ruzafa along with some orange trees, a row of birch trees for shade, and a few stately date palms just to remind you that the Mediterranean is nearby.

There is at least one wedding every Saturday afternoon at San Valero which bring added crowds to the square, not to mention the dozen or so religious holidays that insure a decent turn-out for mass. Just about everything that is goes on in the church is celebrated by a pealing of the bells in the tower. There is a special ringing of a smaller bell for the call to mass throughout the day. The first one is weekdays at 07:30. When I first moved to the neighborhood I was a bit annoyed by the early mass bells but I soon became charmed by all of the different varieties of ringing. There is the hourly and half-hourly ringing of the big bell. After the twelve bells have rung out for noon there is a louder pealing. The bells can be heard throughout the neighborhood. I always say that if you are too far away from the church to hear the bells, you are too far from Ruzafa and you'd better start getting back.

I either notice the bells ringing or I don't; they are like the beating of your heart, or the watch on your wrist, or the constantly moving celestial bodies. If you are walking through the streets on a deserted Sunday morning you can actually feel the vibrations for the bells after they have finished ringing, or maybe I just think that I can feel them. For weddings and religious celebrations all hell breaks loose in the tower when they ring all of the bells at once. It's the most joyous sound I have ever heard outside of a great piece of music. If you happen to be sitting at a café in the little square, the noise just about knocks you out of your chair. You are tempted to clap when it has all finished.

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